Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Spreading the News

I promised I'd explain the fall hiatus when the time came, and since the semester is nigh on over, and the explanation is making the rounds anyway, I figured now's as good a time as any. So here are many reasons why this blog went silent for a bit.

1) In the middle of the summer, my grandmother passed away. This in and of itself was not earth-shattering. I don't want to be calloused, but she suffered from Paranoid schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, and was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, and then she had the fatal stroke. It had been a long time since the grandmother I knew had been in our lives. But the mourning was far less an issue than the events it set off in the family at large.

2) Extended Family Drama that included, in no particular order: old resentments, poorly disguised relief, old fears, unnecessary moralizing, boundary issues, betrayed confidences, and some use of substances not helpful in aiding clear-headedness. I won't say anymore about that.

3) Busiest Semester Yet of my academic career: three preps, two brand new, and the third, a comp class substituted at the last minute, not to mention an independent study with a (fabulous) grad student. Plus! final push to get the edited manuscript out, edits on two articles in the pipeline, and chairing two committees.

4) Willow's first semester back in the classroom since our move to BRU=more stacks of papers in the house, and fewer common free hours.

5) The Biggie: Baby C. Coming in June. As twins, Rambunctious and Imperia were labeled Baby A and Baby B, respectively, on the early sonograms. And so now, 12 weeks along, is Baby C. It is perhaps important to note that we first expected Baby C in March, but that never materialized, and so June it is.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

When Good Classes Go...

This postmodernism class has been a real blast this semester. For whatever reason, a looser dynamic has emerged, in part because some vocal students have felt comfortable enough to express their frustration, suspicion, and general distaste for the material, which often consists of textual play and literary tricks. A lot of these students haven't felt in on the jokes.

But because they knew that they weren't in on it, and didn't like that fact, we were able to talk really frankly early on about what they were struggling with, and how we could work through that. Without those students who were brave enough to say "I hate this book," I'd now be writing about long lectures to silent, reticent students.

One of the ways that I ended up designing the class was that I knew I was assigning ambitiously, but I left open the possibility that many students would skip something or other. Exams were designed to let them talk about books they engaged with, and ignore others entirely. This has rarely been a problem in terms of the classroom dynamic, since most students have ended up participating in significant ways during the semester. The idea is that they contribute when they're ready. It's not something I do often, but given the level of the class and its comparatively unimportant place in the curriculum, it seems like a good way to go.

Rarely, but occasionally, do I get the kind of moments where people choose not to read en masse. Typically I assigned a few poems for days when response papers were due, so we could work on them in class regardless of whether people had read. But I knew that assigning anything, let alone a novel, for the last week of class, immediately following the week-long Thanksgiving break, was risky. The text was Rushdie's Haroun and the Seas of Stories which is ostensibly a novel for adolescents, and a breezy read, so I though if I could get them to read anything, this would be it.

But no surprise, today's class started with a short exercise that yielded mostly blank stares and still pens. Only about 8 people in a class of 25 had read, and so I gave a short lecture on my primary goals for including the text (which essentially wraps up virtually every major concern of the class), and then dismissed the class, suggesting that anyone who wanted to stick around could.

Pretty much everyone packed up, and I was doing the same, but I noticed two pockets of students on opposite sides of the class still talking about the book. So I gathered them together, and we talked--informally, but in depth as well--about the novel, and then ranged on to some of the ways that postmodern theory (Jameson, Baudrillard) really did reflect their lives and the world as they observed and understood it. One student who had initially left, but passed backl by the class, came back in and joined the conversation. We went on for another 45 minutes, just people talking about a book in a way that was in depth, and engaged, and active.

It was kinda great, after a class that initially looked like a total bust. And by the way, if haven't read Haroun, do yourself a favor...it's a delightful little read...

Friday, November 21, 2008

On the importance of stories

My contemporary literature class (despite its status as a 200-level course) has revolved around postmodern theories of literature and culture. I have asked students in small groups to present on one essay or excerpt on postmodern literary/cultural studies, and then following their presentation, I take the ball and run with it. We've read Barth, Lyotard, McHale, Jameson, Hutcheon, Hayden White, bell hooks, and Baudrillard. They've done remarkably well.

They've been paired with readings from Borges, Calvino, Stoppard, Winterson, Angela Carter, Sexton, Baraka, George Saunders, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, Kundera and Spiegelman. It's been an extraordinarily fun course, and the students are thinking. hard. It's always nice to see the tiny explosions of 27 minds (my own included) being blown at the same moment. (The student who used the electoral projection maps in late October in response to Baudrillard was a nice moment).

One of the conundrums we've been running up against, though, is on the one hand, the necessary fictionality of all discourse, running up against the imperative to tell stories, fictional and historical as vital to human survival. Maus and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting make this crucially clear, but even If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or Rushdie's "children's" novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, give us variations on this theme. Telling stories in a fictional world will save our lives in the real world.

Not incidentally, then, I began thinking about returning to the blog right around the time I was teaching Kundera and Spiegelman. Kundera has some pithy quotes about the need to write about ourselves...I don't have the text handy, but it's something like that we write about ourselves precisely because we have nothing to say. He calls it graphomania, and Googling the term will get you a few summaries of the idea. Essentially, we feel invisible, and therefore seek to impose our presence on the world (via readers) through writing our lives.

Blogging certainly runs up against these ideas: the struggle to find ourselves heard (read) amidst a sea of writing. We tell these stories over and over again, of classes, of writing travails, of forays onto the job market. They are conventional, often, though some do distinguish themselves, and yet despite their conventionality they remain crucial; these narrative exchanges serve as connections in an anonymous world.

If stories shape our sense of the world, and our identity in those worlds, then the stories we tell about ourselves become essential, even as they run up against the impossibility of reference. And so we tell these stories in this impossible space, Lyotardian micronarratives set within the hyperreal of Baudrillard. We are at once hopelessly postmodern and at the same time, so simple, so straitforward. We are the stories we tell about ourselves, and so we tell these stories as if our lives depended on them. And our lives, in some symbolic way, do.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Pain

Theorists of performativity, notably Judith Butler, have always had trouble bending the logical extension of the theory around the idea of pain. We are generally in agreement about the performativity of gender, and we have come around to the idea of the performativity of sex. Sadiya Hartman has convinced me eloquently of the performativity of race, and there are a host of other ways that we might then use performativity to theorize the ways that we discusively stylize the body, how we write identity onto ourselves with gesture, language, costume, and contact.

But pain resists this theory. In every theory I've come across, it remains the ineffable. We can talk about the performativity even of disability, but the pain doesn't disappear. Look at the work of Bob Flanagan, or of Susan Miller, or of a host of other performers of illness and pain and these performances often become testimony to the ultimate reassurance of existence. Trent Reznor famously puts it: "I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain /the only thing that's real."

I've been teaching Angels in America this semester, and the contexts of two of my classes, political drama and postmodern literature, have brought me to look at this play in a slightly new way. The play's stylistic approach is often (though not always) what we might call Brechtian camp. The heightened, parodic excess of camp defines the aesthetics of the play's dream, hallucination, and supernatural sequences, but does so in a more pointedly politicized way than typical queer camp tends to do (the difference is in the "pointedly" not the "politicized"). What remains though, are several scenes that are actually staged quite realistically, scenes that tend at their most brutal to deal with both the physical and psychic pain caused by AIDS specifically, and the epidemic more broadly. The scene in which Prior Walter first must be taken to the hospital is a brutal one, with bleeding and shitting and sweating and falling down all happening onstage.

In my postmodern class, we might look at this stylistic shift specifically within the framework of, say, magical realism, and note the apparent ontological, non-metaphorical blending of the real and fantastic, note its consistency with the anti-bureucratic impulses of Rushdie, Carpentier, Fuentes, Allende (See Wendy Faris's article, "Scheherezade's Children"), and talk about the hetero-cosmic worldview in light of Brian McHale's notion of the Ontological Fiction. Done.

But in the political theatre class, which is home to several openly queer students, the focus came to settle on what this representational style has to do with AIDS, and why this play had to be theatre. And what arose from this was that the camp sensibility of the play serves to underscore the arbitrariness of all identity categories, the performativity of them, and at the same time affirms the ineffable nataure of pain, of suffering. of course, unlike the bodied performances of Bob Flanagan, this ineffable pain is in fact performed by an actor, an epistemological hitch for what seems like an ontological assertion.

And so in my thinking, I have turned instead not to performed pain, but felt pain. Because Kushner's dilemma of the political of theatrical representation and the thearical aesthetics of politics transforms so terribly into a personal, embodied, nightmarish existence for others. What few will deny is ontologically real.

The dilemma: that which resists performativity cannot be performed. That which resists writing cannot be written. We can write about pain, and perform the gestures of pain, but pain itself cannot be written or performed. It can barely be measured. It is so extraordinarily experiential, embodied, and pre-linguistic that doctors have little way of reliably gauging it, and no way at all of reliably verifying it.

My mother has been diagnosed alternatively with Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Scleroderma, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Colitis, IBS, IBD, and Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. Who knows what else is in there. She feels pain all over, and frequently. There is the shoulder pain and the hand pain and the stiffness walking. But most acutely is this strange, searing pain in her middle abdomen, to the left side, that has resisted diagnosis, detection, even verification. There is no evidence of this particular pain in action (there are scars from ailments), even as she squirms under its grasp. Somatosis has been mentioned more than once, as has medication seeking (and be sure that pain management has been done poorly and with consequences that extend beyond the physical). But so much has been verified--in retrospect, in tiny glimpses and patches, pieces of puzzle with no clear sense of the other pieces--that it is hard to doubt the ontological real of this pain.

After probably two-plus months of the last 18 spent in hospital with tests galore and specialists and consultations and theories and hopes and disappointments, she's at a stable but not remotely pain free place. This is a piece of her experience I cannot know, and for a relationship that was once built on our affinities and common modes of relating to the world, it is a piece that drives us apart. I can't help but feeling a little like Louis from Angels, self-flagellating over my response to her illness (some 15 or 20, or maybe 35 years on), doing little in the process to actually help her.

This election promises a tiny piece of hope in the discussions of health care being bandied about. But this is just paying for treatment, not a new treatment itself, and there is, with the present options, little hope of improvement, let alone actual healing. Just managing a pain that cannot be detected, measured, or named. In that light, this work I do seems small and weightless, flitting about in the tissue of culture that swirls around that hard excruciating core of pain, the real that resists camp, simulacrum, performativity, discourse.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The sign that a hiatus is ending...

is often that I post about the continuing hiatus. It means I've been thinking about the blog again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

As Long Dark National Nightmares Go...

I've been teaching Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting this semester, remarkably, at the same time as the election. Reading about the kinds of state abuses of power that Kundera describes, and the controlling of the national history, the national narrative, and the minute details of citizens' lives, I have to say that our own last eight years kind of come into a different perspective.

Indeed, the United States has presided over some atrocities, most specifically related to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, and other names for torture. And admittedly, the domestic wiretapping certainly echoes of the sorts of abuses that Kundera describes in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia (isn't it funny how the name of that once-nation sounds strange again?).

But reading of exiles, executed traitors of the state, excommunicated writers, poets and historians, I can't help but think that eight years followed by the promise of major change without the threat of tanks rolling into town one day to dismantle the government certainly feels different than the kind of rolling into town that the inauguration in January will be.

And more subtly, but as importantly, I'm thinking about the sexuality in Kundera's book. Everywhere affairs, orgies, threesomes, random gropings in mechanic's shops. It's not that I have a problem with sexual variety (that'd be hypocritical at least), but it's the kind of nihilism that Kundera's sex scenes exhibit. And they're there in virtually every episode. The one prospect of amorous coition is thwarted in the novel, and what is left is often described as rape, castration, or at best, ridiculous contortions of the body.

I'm not in a position to take our national temperature in the bedroom (although my impulse is to say that it's fairly tepid right now), but to read the absence of desire in Kundera's sex scenes is to discover what a kind of national hopelessness feels like, and after eight years where the political scene verged on hopelessness, I realized how much hope I was able to maintain all along.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Explaining the hiatus

I write this with the illusion that people still occasionally check this site, which seems unlikely given the glut of other excellent things to be reading. Anyway, I'm taking a bit of hiatus (as if you haven't noticed), that will continue on into mid-December, and maybe onto the first of the year, or even until Inauguration ( a nice significant date to return to online writing). There's a lot going on here, much of it good, but not really ready for the world as such. I'll continue to comment online occasionally, and may even be at MLA for a day or so since we'll already be in the Bay Area for the holidays. So see you around the blogosphere and what not...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jailbreak

I am in grading jail. I collected my first batch of papers about 24 hours ago from my composition class. In total, there are only about 16 papers in all after missed deadlines and students dropping the course.

So I'm going to try to do something totally unprecedented for me, and turn them around in 48 hours. In the first 24 hours, I've already graded eight of them.

So can I do it? Can I bust out of grading jail so quickly? Wish me luck.

Even if I do, though, the long arm of the grading law will be waiting. Assuming I return these papers tomorrow at 1, I collect a batch of papers from another class tomorrow at 2:30.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A big, deep. sigh of relief

The edited collection goes to the press today. All edited, proofread, formatted and ready to go.

Next, we'll get readers to look it over, and make final changes, but the big push (for now) is done. It's too early to break open some champagne, but maybe I'll have an extra cup of coffee.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the Joys of New Preps

For various reasons this semester, I'm teaching two new preps, and a revamp of a prep I've not taught in a while.

So the two new preps are not only new courses in the way that they're configured, but also chock full of new books I've never taught before. While in many ways, this is a pain, because of all the lesson planning I'm doing from the ground up, it's also been extraordinarily invigorating.

Take my 300-level American Drama class, which I have focusing on political theatre. For whatever reason, I've never had occasion to teach either Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty, and perhaps more surprisingly, have never taught Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. Both are really interesting little plays, ones I hadn't heard about as an undergrad, but whose fortunes in the critical discussion have gone in opposite directions in the recent critical climate.

But I am loving how much my students are digging these plays. One of my male students said something like, "when I read the back of the book, I thought that this was going to take hours to get through, but I ended up really loving it."

Now, I can get these kinds of comments all the time from texts I've been teaching for ages. But what I don't get in those situations is the kind of unexpected glee. I can expect that students are going to dig Blake or Woolf in the Brit Lit II course, or that Cloud 9 will generate loads of hot potato discussion. There is joy in these moments, but the joy is expected, part of my daily budget of things to look forward to.

But when a new text comes along and just rocks the house, it's like finding money in your freshly laundered pockets.

So in the new prep, for evey text that goes over like a lead balloon (oddly, Calvino's If on a winter's night...), we also find these unexpected hours in our day in which thoughts are flying around the room like like bees, swarming and buzzing and dangerous and sweet. Moments like this, the job is hardly work.

(Plus, I really like Machinal, so I'm happy to know that it will work well on syllabi into the future).

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I should not be posting

But instead of prepping for class, here I am.

There have been a truckload of things going on: my grandmother passed away in late July; my mother's health has been a whirlwind of uneasy, troubling questions; Willow's starting back into the classroom as a TA here; and some other unreportable events have meant that everything is up in the air, or the big stuff, at least, like where we'll live and what Willow will do for a career when her MFA is done.

Plus I'm teaching three preps, two of which are brand new, and one of which is seriously revised from the last time I taught it. So we've hardly had time to think.

But not all is lost: the classes I have are going well, especially the 15-student 300-level course on American Political Drama. And the writing proceeds apace, with two articles forthcomin in journals, and the edited collection very nearly finished (although to hear Dr. Crazy speak of it, this process with this press can liiiiinnnnggggggerrrrrr).

I'm trying to knock off one thing after another (annual report, new preps, article revisions, committee work, editing tasks) as they come up, without completely abnegating my responsibilities around the home (trash, dishes--sometimes-- laundry--sometimes--, cooking, playing with the kids , you know the routine.

Accordingly, things fall through the cracks: commenting on other people's blogs, even when I lurk relentlessly, reading closely for class, getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night, etc.

But you know this: you live it too. Maybe I'll post more these days, maybe not, maybe it doesn't really matter.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Anniversaries

Ten years ago this week, I taught my first class. As I waited outside the building, in new linen pants and blazer, the department chair (whom I knew from a class the previous semester) walked by and asked if I was in fact going in for the first time.

"Yup," I said. "today my first class, and in 25 years, I'll be department chair, just like you."

Pause.

"Yeeaahhhh...." he said...dubious.

Fifteen years left to make good on that promise.

*********************

Twelve years ago this week, I walked into the first class of my first seminar. That course on Modern Drama was taught by my future advisor. I sat down next to an attractive woman whom I would later marry. How many other people do you know can claim they met two of the most influential people in their lives (in different ways) in the same moment?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Brain Space

Thus is my semester, already a week old:

Today, in the space of a few hours, I taught some sections of Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; the George Aiken melodrama version of Uncle Tom's Cabin; and two stories by Jorge Luis Borges--"The Garden of Forking Paths," and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote."

You'll understand if I don't have much time to blog for a bit.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Bloggy Break

If you couldn't tell from the already three-week hiatus, I'm taking a little bloggy break. Writing deadlines, new course preps (one at the last minute), and at least one new service responsibility, plus some big family issues are all brewing. Hopefully after the deadlines pass and the semester settles in in early September, I'll be back, fer sure.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How the University Works

Some months ago, I was asked to review a book on this blog, which was an unusual request, but one about which I was enthusastic: Marc Bousquet's How the University Works. Bousquet now has a blog of the same name, one that I've been reading enthusastically for some weeks now. I have bookmarked his Academic Labor Bookshelf entry, and returned to it for some of my own work.

Anyway, I've been working my way through the book, and thought now might be a time to comment on it here in this space (especially since I've had that free copy of the book for several months). I might wryly note the funny little catch-22 with reviewing this book in this space: you know, a book on academic labor policies, being reviewed on a site where the labor can't be counted toward annual review, tenure, or compensation. But that's not a real critique, though--I am very much invested in the cycle of writing, reading, and responding in academia for its own sake. And what's more: Bousquet's got his sights set on labor abuses much more pervasive than a measly free review.

Anyway, let me start with the only thing that annoys me about the book: tone. Bousquet writes like a 60s radical. In many many ways, this is a good thing, particularly given the activism undertaken by the book. But for academic reading, I find it a troublesome rhetorical choice. The tone is often so sabre-rattling that I find myself looking for reasons to disagree, even when I already agree. I am deeply invested in understanding the politicized nature of the university, and in addressing the university itself as a site of activism, but the activist rhetoric of Bousquet's book throughout makes me feel defensive, even when I am not the object of his critique. This can be true of his online persona as well: quick to call less-than-helpful commenters
"trolls," combatative with even friendly voices, sharp in his retorts. It's not an ethos to which I personally respond particularly well, and he comes off sounding like a bully, even though he is consistently fighting for the underdog.

That little issue aside, I find the book itself to be a trenchant critique of an increasingly dire situation: the exploitation of labor by and through academe. Bousquet's general argument seems to be that the increasing corporatization of the university revolves around a particularly deleterious set of labor practices that has generally trended toward more middle-and upper-management practices in a growing stratum of administration on the one hand, and the increasing casualization of teaching labor on the other hand, companion trends that have specifically abusive effects on that very casualized labor, on students (who in some cases, may fall into both categories), and finally on tenured and tenurable faculty as well.

Some components of this system that Bousquet calls particular attention to include the following:
  • The smooth and steady transformation of teaching and education into "information delivery," and automation and commodification that at once seems to point us toward the boom of digital diploma mills, and at the same time exercises the same logic of uniformity that has made fast food such a profitable enterprise--less-skilled labor can deliver information without necessarily having the expertise, or the working conditions, to foster a thriving environment. This all adds up to less-empowered teachers (who for various reasons are given less control over curriculum), students (whose individual needs and skills are less-accounted for in the classroom), and graduates (who become too easily acculturated to accepting an "informatized" mode of citizenship.
  • The transformation of tenured faculty into management via "administration" often serves to reinforce the current climate of academic capitalism, rather than alleviate it, particularly because it underscores the complicity of academics forced to be "pragmatic" in advancing the claims of the inevitability and necessity of a corporate academy.
  • "Students who work,"a supremely exploited class of laborers both in the academy, and in corporations like UPS that partner with universities to create "job opportunities" that are so strenuous that they frequently make getting an education all but impossible. Bousquet's chapter on UPS reads like an Eric-Schlosser-style expose of the seedy underbelly of practices that universities unwittingly, and sometimes enthusiastically endorse. This chapter has been widely cited as among the most eye-opening, though having worked in a career center elsewhere when UPS came a-calling, I have seen all to well the "opportunity" they offer. I believe you can download a pdf of the chapter on Bousquet's site.
  • The casualization of graduate labor, particularly in composition classes, puts Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) in the position of lower management, exploiting graduate student labor under the guise of a certain kind of educational heroism. Bousquet has written about rhet/comp before, in Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers, and is a veteran of Graduate Caucus labor efforts. Though my sense is that he is a little uncharitable to the position of WPAs, tagging them with the ironic "heroic WPA" tag, he is dead on that the increasing disciplinarization of composition studies represents a move toward management science via teacher training. This has a double effect of making WPAs complicit in corporatization practices (by continually authorizing and implementing an information delivery model of education via casualized student, contract, and untenurable laborers), while at the same time guaranteeing their status as second-class faculty whose "discipline" is grounded "merely" in pedagogical praxis. I want to re-read this chapter more carefully, for my first reading of it struggled with tone issues, but his impulse toward organized labor strikes me (no pun intended) as a useful one.
  • The rhetoric of a meritocratic job market has encouraged those who do make the tenure track to distance themselves from freeway fliers, adjuncts, and contract labor, which in turn enables the university at large to effect the employment of those laborers at substandard conditions, clearly preferring less expensive teaching labor to quality teaching labor. The growth, then of the university's reliance on casualized labor continues to fuel the hiring crisis in the humanities, leaving the tenured faculty in the position of merely securing reputation, while passing off much of the (least desirable) teaching duties to less-empowered faculty.
It's a bleak picture generally, though Bousquet remains committed to the idea of organizing at all levels. While I am all for unionizing (and was briefly a part of that effort as a grad student), I wonder how far this will go toward dismantling this system. Bousquet, rightly, seems to think that it is at least a necessary step.

So how, as TT faculty, might we approach this? First, Bousquet notes, we must recognize that that even when we have the cushy TT positions, that this is our problem, too. He draws out the following postulates:
  1. We are not 'overproducing PhDs'; we are underproducing jobs.
  2. Cheap teaching is not a victimless crime.
  3. Casualization is an issue of racial, gendered, and class justice.
  4. Late capitalism doesn't just happen to the university; the university makes late capitalism happen. (40-44)
In the end, we must fight for the rights of our contingent faculty to organize, and exercise solidarity with those faculty, rather than treating them as pariahs, substandard teachers, or mere apprentices. And when we can, we must make decisions that decrease the casualization of contingent labor rather than increase it.

But don't take my word for it. Check out Bousquet's book, and try to look past the tone, which, for all I know, may be a necessary stance for him to take as one of too-few pro-labor voices crying out in the corporate-academic wilderness. It's an important cry.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Critical Pedagogies at Enculturation

Just to keep the ostensible focus of the blog on teaching, check out the new issue of the online journal Enculturation, focused on "Critical Pedagogies and Cultural Studies," and guest edited by Rachel Riedner, whose new book, co-authored with Kevin Mahoney, and entitled Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism and Resistance Communities, currently graces my desk.

Classics and New Classics

Andi, over at AndiLit has just tagged me with a meme about reading the "classics" which in addition to being an interesting meme, dovetails with some things I've been thinking about lately in terms of canon formation, list-making, and book reading (as opposed to, umm, blog reading).

Anyway, Andi's meme goes like this:
1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

Of course, this meme is a trap, where no answer won't get me in some sort of indefensible territory, if for no other reason than it relies on the word "classic." But more on that below. In the meantime, I'll try to take this at face value, and just do the meme.

Best Classic: By "best," I think we're going with some sense of an eye-opening read, something that has both personal appeal and that ineffable quality, "literary merit." I'm going to go with T.S. Eliot's anthologized poetry if I can be that broad, and if, not, then "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In generally, these poems hit me where it counts. I think I respond in particular to the call for difficulty that Eliot makes for modernist poetry, the idea that a poem might be like some sort of origami puzzle, or perhaps an unknot, one that comes to perfection by unfolding, or unraveling rather than folding or tying. "Prufrock" specifically also works on a level that I feel in a vaguely familiar way: that kind of isolation in a crowd that is a hallmark of modern angst resonated with the teenaged me in a way that nerdy teens often feel. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all. Apologies to: Hamlet, Mrs. Dalloway, Godot, Tristam Shandy, Cloud 9, Invisible Man, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Trojan Women, Anne Sexton's Transformations, Angela Carter, Midnight's Children.

Worst Classic: Andi called Middlemarch her "best" and I'd be tempted to put it here, but mostly because on an affective level, I'd be tempted to put many many Victorian novels, particularly the big romances, in this slot. I find many of them to be the literary equivalent of drinking sand. I know not all Victorian lit follows this way, and much of it has to do with how it was taught to me, but still, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, could all go here for me. And although I really really want to break convention and go a different direction with this choice, it's another Victorian novel that gets the "worst" designation" from me: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. I still feel terrible about this, because I recognize that there's really interesting stuff going on in these novels, stuff with gender and class and morality. The two Dickens novels particularly fall into that "teeming with Life" sort of novel that I adore in contemporary fiction. But alas, you'd have to ply me with a lot of, what? chocolate, good cheese, bread, wine, maybe even cash, to get me to re-read the Gaskell book assigned by my Brit Lit II professor. And as someone who now teaches a lot of Brit Lit II, I can assure my students that I will not make them read Gaskell. Other nominees: Pamela, Women in Love, George Bernard Shaw,

Mandatory Classic: How can I not say Hamlet? Although I don't feel it in my gut the same way I do, say, "Prufrock," the combination of poetry, introspection, madness, playfulness, theatricality, and Yorick's skull add up to something pretty effin' awesome. And if not for the merit of the play alone, how else could I teach the Rushdie story "Yorick" or Stoppard's R&G, or even Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine? The point is, this is maybe a mandatory text because of its combination of actual quality, and cultural capital.

Put it to rest: Well, I find it hard to justify D.H. Lawrence anymore (sorry to the particular reader who I know does a lot with Lawrence). And I'm not sure what benefit comes from reading Alexander Pope, either. But in general, as someone who does cultural studies of texts as artifacts of culture, rather than as the pinnacle of culture, I'm not one for excluding texts, even those I really despise reading myself.

On why: Listen, we all know that canon formation has as much to do with politics as it does with aesthetics. To claim that I like modernist texts because they're difficult is virtually tantamount to professing fascism. And even I notice the preponderance of white guys on this meme, which suggests for this reader the persistence of canonicity despite the successful break-in of many heretofore marginal subjectivities in syllabi around the academy. And let's not kid ourselves about the role of sales here. One may note that William Blake sold hardly a copy in his day, but he sure sells like hotcakes today. What makes a classic? There's no easy answer, except that it can be only be explained by a careful calculus of politics, commerce, history, culture, and literary technique, itself a category that can't be separated from the other notions.

This all gets me to something else that's been sticking in my craw for a couple of weeks. I may have mentioned that despite all of my pretensions, I read nothing so faithfully as Entertainment Weekly. (I know!) Anyway, a few weeks ago, for their 1000th issue, they released an issue of lists of "New Classics" from the past 25 years. Now I'm sure this generated loads of letters, and it probably sold some copies, because really, who doesn't love subjective ranking lists? But I got my knickers in a particular twist by their books list, mostly because I couldn't possible figure out what the criteria would have been. Sales? Popularity? Name recognition in the US? "Quality?" Let's just look at the top ten for clues:
1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)

OK, so what we see here are some perhaps obvious choices from a scholarly standpoint Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Art Spiegelman are all solid choices, hard to argue with. Cormac McCarthy may also be pretty hard to argue with as being on the list, though I suspect that the position at the top has more to do with cultural currency than anything. In 20 years would it be near the top? who can say?

But then other choices suggest a kind of nod toward other elements: Mystic River is widely regarded as a sublime example of a certain kind of genre fiction, and indeed, it may merely be marketing that has kept it off of academic reading lists (we are blinkered in our own ways). I don't know, though: I haven't read it. While I cringe at the inclusion of Cold Mountain, it seems to be here as a nod toward the massive best seller, and they can't really put The Da Vinci Code this high (as it is, it's in the 90s). The Murakami is a hip choice, international and edgy at once. The Potter choice speaks to all kinds of things, including audience appeal, and sales, though why they'd simply choose one book (when they list Pullman's superior His Dark Materials together) is baffling. Willow assures me that The Liar's Club is all kinds of influential, and really initiated the big memoir push, though I have never heard of it. Give me Didion or Eggers or Lauren Slater or W.G. Sebald any day. The Munro collection is a brave choice, and a welcome one I think: short fiction is under-discussed generally, and Munroe is about as good as it gets. The list attends nicely to short fiction, too, with George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lorrie Moore all appearing.

I am more surprised by what's missing on the list. Besides Indian-American Lahiri, there are no Indian novelists on the list, which means that none of the literary output of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, or Bharati Mukherjee is stronger than, say, Jon Stewart's American: The Book, Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, or that Dan Brown book, let alone Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones (#34).

There's also, as far as I can tell, nothing from Africa at all. Forget Ben Okri's Booker-prize winning The Famished Road, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Purple Hibiscus, or Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, but even the ahem, less-threatening (cough White cough) J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer aren't here.

Nor is Like Water for Chocolate, or anything by Orhan Pamuk, or Jeanette Winterson, or Julian Barnes, or Paul Auster, or... or... or...

And let's not even talk about genre. Because by books, we mean, generally, prose. Novels, Short stories, memoir, and to a lesser degree other kinds of non-fiction. No poetry counts. And let's not even begin to talk about the wretched theatre list. I can't even be bothered.

Sigh. So anyway, a new meme: Best books of prose narrative of the last 25 years--that I've read. Which means that many exclusions can be chalked up to the fact that I haven't read them yet. We'll see if anyone picks it up.

Anyway, the rules:
1. Read the Entertainment Weekly List of New Classics:
2. Make a list of 10 or 20 or 25 of the best books of prose narrative (which excludes things like Fast Food Nation, which EW includes) you've read written since 1983.
3. Put it on your blog.
4. Boldface the authors not appearing on EW's top 100. Italicize the authors who appear with a different book.
5. Tag people if you want.

Around 50 recent books I've read that are better than Cold Mountain, in no particular order
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Zadie Smith: White Teeth
  • Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
  • J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace, Foe
  • Jeanette Winterson: Written on the Body, Sexing the Cherry, The Passion
  • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin
  • E.L. Doctorow: City of God
  • George Saunders: Pastoralia
  • Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus, Wise Children, Burning your Boats (which is cheating since this story collection includes The Bloody Chamber which is older than 25 years)
  • Michael Cunningham: The Hours
  • Dave Eggers : A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved
  • Art Spiegelman: Maus
  • Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials
  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible
  • Salman Rushdie: Shame, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Don Delillo: White Noise, Mao II
  • Laura Esquivel: Like Water for Chocolate
  • David Markson: This is Not a Novel
  • WG Sebald: Austerlitz
  • Maxine Hong Kingston: The Woman Warrior
  • Tim OBrien: The Things They Carried
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies
  • Julia Alvarez: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
  • Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
  • Michael Chabon: Kavalier and Clay
  • Neil Gaiman: American Gods
  • Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
  • Harry Crews: Body
  • Andrew Holleran: Dancer from the Dance
  • David Lodge: Small World
  • Suzan-Lori Parks: Getting Mother's Body
  • Arthur Phillips: Prague
  • JK Rowling: The Harry Potter Series
  • Lorrie Moore: Birds of America
  • AS Byatt: The Biographer's Tale
  • Umberto Eco: The Island of the Day Before
  • Nick Hornby: How to Be Good
  • Jamaica Kincaid: Annie John
  • PD James: The Children of Men
  • Alan Kurzweil: The Case of Curiosities, The Grand Complication
  • Gregory Maguire: Wicked
  • Howard Norman: The Museum Guard
  • Ruth Ozeki: My Year of Meats
  • Sarah Pritchard: Lately
  • Kurt Vonnegut : Hocus Pocus

A final note: In that issue is a short graphic memoir piece by Alison Bechdel (who appears on the list) whose narrative of her own reading life suggests that the best way to keep people from reading "the classics" is to put them on the list. She apparently preferred Harriet the Spy.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

For the Kitten

When Willow and I met, she had two cats, Ziggy and The Kitten. Even after The Kitten was fully grown, she remained The Kitten. Mostly white with a smoky grey tail and ears, The Kitten was subdued, elegant, and excellent companionship for the lap when you were ill. She loved nothing more than to curl up in a perfect circle inside the large, robin-egg blue box that once held our crystal Tiffany cake plate, a wedding gift from Willow's best friend.

When Willow and I moved in together, I brought Molly along, at that point, a mere yearling. Molly was both territorial and protective of her Daddy. She could do nothing about Ziggy (who has spent most of his life around the 23-lb. mark), but the Kitten she terrorized, often waiting on the litter box hood to attack The Kitten as she emerged from her necessaries. As you might imagine, this caused the Kitten to avoid the litter box, favoring instead, in no particular order, a backpack full of student papers, several pairs of shoes, a laptop bag complete with laptop, and many many plastic shopping bags.

So we had to find a new home for The Kitten. Willow's best friend (she of the Tiffany blue box, natch) took her in, and The Kitten soon made her and her husband into true devotees. When Willow and I would visit, the Kitten generally snubbed us.

Well, sadly, some five or six years after sending her on, the Kitten curled up in her last warm circle, and was put to sleep to help alleviate ailments too numerous and undignified to mention. Ziggy (that beast) and Molly (that brazen hussy, at least to The Kitten) live on with us. But even though Ihaven't seen the Kitten in years now, I miss her quite a bit.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

An Online Honor; or, Biting the Hand

I recently received an email notifying my that this here blog had been listed on someone's Top 100 blogs by liberal arts professors. Woo Hoo! Top 100!

Now, I'm a sucker for baseless accolades, but this little blog isn't updated frequently enough, nor proofread rigorously enough, to warrant any actual accolades. Having some good readers who seem to think I'm interesting from time to time has always been enough. Heck, I've never even been tagged in one of those "Five Thinking Bloggers" memes--I probably wouldn't even tag myself.

So that was nice email to get! I'm in good company, with Jo(e), and Claire Potter, and Bardiac, and lots of others.

But wait a minute? Where is Dr. Crazy on this list? Flavia? Oso Raro? Dr. Virago? All top notch bloggers, who, frankly, I'd read well before I'd find my way to this blog. What kind of methodology is being used here? Who are these Top-100 listmakers, anyway?

Oh! Look at their front page (well, you can't, for I haven't linked them)! It's all "unbiased" reviews and ads for online universities, particularly of the for-profit variety. Oh yes, there are a couple thrown in there with bricks-and-mortar reputations, University of Maryland, Cornell. U of M, though, has an online campus that may or my not be for-profit, but it certainly advertises like one. Couldn't say about Cornell. Alongside these august institutions, though, are DeVry, U of Phoenix, and Walden University. Hmmm.

So where do these Top 100 awards I've been included in fall into the mission of this honorific-bestowing site? Wait a minute. There's no link to this list on the main page at all. In fact, the post seems to have been back-date-stamped to 2005, so as to appear nowhere near the front page! Buried, if you will, so that liberal arts blogging isn't confused with the actual mission of the website.

So how do I, an erstwhile critic of the corporatization of the American academy, feel about this inclusion?

Not good. First off, I don't like the association with for-profit education. I don't know enough about it to form a definite opinion, but my instinct is that it abuses academic labor, fosters substandard learning experiences, and is generally vulnerable to undue corporate influence on actual learning. Perhaps not in all cases, but almost certainly in many. No thanks.

But what really sticks in my craw, is that this list seems to be an advertising tactic: "honoring" humanities bloggers, is really just a cheap trick to generate links to a site that shills a kind of education that few-to-none of us work in, and probably few-to-none of us support with any kind of enthusiasm (though perhaps I should speak for myself).

You'll probably see some links up around the blogosophere about this "honor," but I'll decline to link, thanks. I don't advertise on this space, even in exchange for flattery. We'll see how long I stay on the list, in fact.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Pop Culture I'm Consuming

Instead of spending more time boring you with the virtually baseless sense of dread about my career that I seem to be harboring (for those who care, it's almost certainly a displaced sense of dread from other, more typical anxieties that Freud would have plenty to say about), I thought I'd blog about some of the fluffy pop culture material I am consuming (late to the party in some cases, but still), and enjoying.

The is, while I was pretty on top of the pop culture game before kids, the munchkins now occupy much of the time otherwise devotable to TV, films, and what have you. I remember that when I was at my last position and commuting via subway, that I had a thought one day, riding up the escalator as the kids neared their first birthday: that a year prior, I recalled having a Radiohead song stuck in my brain, and hoping that I'd be a cool dad who had infants and still listened to indie post-rock soundscapes, but jammed in my head that day a year later, I had "C is for Cookie."

So with what time I've had left after Sesame Street soundtracks and Backyardigans episodes (which I'll confess to enjoying as much as the kids do), here's the grown-up fare I've had time for this summer.

  • Slings and Arrows: This three-season, 18 episode Canadian tv show, now on dvd, follows three seasons of a fictional Canadian Shakespeare company. The show is wonderful: knowing about the workings of a decent sized regional company, thoughtful and funny about actors, and really quite in love with its Shakespearean material, this birthday gift from Willow has been a highlight of my tv watching. In fact, since Top Chef ended a few weeks ago (Yay Stephanie!), it's the only scripted tv I've watched.
There's plenty to love: for Willow, it's the loving treatment of, in the first season, Hamlet, which she taught for several years to AP high schoolers, and of which she has memorized large chunks. The television show actually stages modestly sized bits of the text, and has the mad-genius actor-director actually rooting around the text in the way that working actors do, which is to me quite interesting and thoughtful.

For me, I enjoy the theatre-company politics of donors and artistic visions and bad wine. The company I worked with was never this big, but many of those same concerns trickled down in their own way, and feel quite familiar. Plus, it co-stars, and is co-written, by Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall, and any time a former Kid surfaces, I'm happy. Anyway, if you don't know this series, it's well worth a Netflix order.

  • On the music front, another birthday present, this time a big iTunes gift card, has me listening to even more new-to-me music. I'm still listening to the new REM in pretty heavy rotation, and I still quite like it, but I also can't quite shake the feeling that Stipe is now as much a skilled poseur as an actual rock star (I know, I'm making a very fine distinction), which I posted about earlier and really maybe I'm just seeing the footwork show a bit--but the lyric "Kick-it out on the dance floor like you just don't care" from the oddly titled "Man-Sized Wreath" just doesn't feel right coming from the almost-50 Stipe. I find much more telling (and endearing) the funny moment in the non-album track "Redhead Walking" when Stipe gives a little, high pitched rock-n-roll screech "Ow!" and then laughs, "oh, that hurt." But by and large, listenable, good material from a band I've always liked, even loved.

  • I'm also still listening to Andrew Bird, and bought an earlier album called something like "The Mysterious Production of Eggs" which is good, though I like the more recent album better. I also bought an album by Jolie Holland, formerly of the Be Good Tanyas, who, now solo, is spinning out some great drawly, southern gothic folk stuff that's great on hot, humid summer nights. And I bought some songs by Over the Rhine, which are nice, but have neither the edge of someone like Holland, or the lyricism of a band like Hem, who remain in pretty high rotation for me.

  • But the new obsession for me is The New Pornographers, whose work has always been on the edges of my radar, as I quite like Neko Case solo, but I've been listening to Twin Cinema from 2005 and Challengers from 2007 obsessively this past month for reasons I can't quite explain. All thre reviews about them say most of what I want to say, but there's also something about their 70'sesque power pop that is kind of like mainlining nostalgia, pure and undiluted and blissful, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. My parents never listened to bands that are claimed as NP influences like T.Rex, and I didn't either, but the whole album just feels like the kind of grownup 1978 that swirled around me as a child but I never understood. I dunno. But I like it a lot.

  • Haven't seen any movies this summer, aside from Iron Man in May (meh. fine. whatever). Willow will want to see the Dark Knight movie soon, and I kinda wouldn't mind seeing Get Smart, but summer movies haven't really been revving my engine lately.

  • Willow and I have been, finally, belatedly, working our way through Harry Potter and the Highly Guessable Plot Device this summer, and I have to say, now on chapter 15, I don't like it. Some background: Willow and I have read every word of the HP series aloud to one another. It started as a kind of bedtime story thing when #3 was just released, as the mania was really beginning, and just continued on. #6 took us ages, since the kids were in the picture, but we thought we'd be better about #7. But then two things happened. First, I actually started having nightmares when we'd read the book just before bed. This is actually not uncommon for me. I dream pretty vividly about narratives I read or watch just before sleep. I once had conspiracy nightmare about Project Runway, of all things. I had to stop watching Heroes because of Sylar nightmares. So Voldemort nightmares were unsurprising, though I hadn't had them for the previous books.

The second thing was that somewhere around chapter 4, I had one of these nightmares turn into the kind of half-sleeping obsessing about something that sometimes sends me upstairs to write at 3 in the morning. That was when I figured out the actual big plot device, and the abundance of spoilers since have confirmed my theory. So basically, a lot of the fun mystery is gone.

But here's the thing, even though the plot is kind of a foregone conclusion, we've returned to it a year later, and the suspense is still really eating at me. The kind of low-hanging dread really just gives me no pleasure. In short, I have no tolerance for dramatic irony. I hate horror films of all kind. Suspense thrillers make me so antsy that I am annoying to watch them with. I paced through the entirety of the neo-noir movie Bound. I regularly have to get up and leave the room for mildly suspenseful moments in otherwise non-suspenseful shows and movies (especially when someone has obviously screwed up and is clearly about to get caught). So the Death-eaters-are-right-around-the-corner dread of this final book is kind of ruining it for me. Plus, the inventive magic that helped me enjoy the first several have kind of turned into a latinate gunplay, with faux-erudite chants accompanied by purple blasts from magic wands seems like laser blasters from Star Wars as much as anything. We'll probably soldier it out, continuing to read aloud, but mostly because it's just too much down to leave unfinished.

  • Finally, my favorite pop culture to consume this time of year is Wimbledon. The white togs, the big serves, the bad teeth of Andy Murray, the beleaguered dominance of Roger Federer, the strangely shy smile of Venus Williams (see also: big serves). I'm in heaven.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Halfway

That's right. The depressing news is in: summer break's halfway over.

ugh.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The other shoe

By most measures, this has been a productive summer thus far. Two articles have been accepted, one by a pretty big journal in my field; the collection is nearing completion, at least submission of the complete draft for readers; I've been writing at a pretty steady rate on these projects, and have been thinking about the next projects.

In the meantime, I'm not behind on my teaching prep for the fall, as I slowly pace through some news texts I'm teaching, and helping an independent study student take on a big new project. And the service work for next year isn't really an issue at the moment. The point is, things are going fine.

And yet, even on a Saturday, in the middle of the summer, when my work has been going fine, as the rest of the house naps, I am anxious about not working. Oh, I am good at procrastinating, just like everyone else, but I have to be procrastinating from something, as opposed to actually relaxing. This, for me, is the downside of having a career where we may not be at work all the time, but we are always working. We, or I, at least, can't stop working.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Unnerving Evaluation

The fact that I almost always post when evaluations come in probably says something. What it says is unclear to me, except that course evaluations mean a lot to me. A former therapist would tut about a continuing struggle to properly contextualize outside affirmation and critique, but others might suggest that my attention to student voices is part of what makes me (I hope) a good teacher.

So it is no surprise, then, that I am posting today. I got my graduate evaluations a while ago, but not the survey course evals. Or at least the hard copies. Statistical scores came in weeks ago, and were pretty much in keeping with what I'm used, which is to say, generally pretty strong. But on the hard copies, a few of the narrative comments are less rosy, in part because I believe they paint a pretty consistent picture of me as a teacher resting on his (scant) laurels. More specifically, they suggest that in overrelying on group work, and not doing enough during group to keep the momentum of the lesson going, by harping on a smaller and smaller set of concerns, and (damningly) by being satisfied (even in short quizzes) by answers that regurgitated my own words.

OK, so this still confirms my decision to reconceive the course next time I teach it (which isn't this coming year, at least), and it will force me to re-think some of the goals and texts in new ways, to break out of a pattern that tends to lead to narrower expectations from students.

But one evaluation stung. It's an outlier, certainly, and I can almost certainly chalk it up to having rubbed one student the wrong way, which is almost inevitable. The student's narrative comments suggested I played favorites (which could be almost predicted from a student who sat in the back of the class, and never spoke in an otherwise talkative class). But that the student suggested that I was both rude to some students and "had an arrogance about him that was not comforting," well, ouch. It's so easy to write off, based on the student hirself, and by the degree to which it is uncharacteristic of comments I've received. But it has unsettled me enough that I ahve been completely unable to concentrate this afternoon on my reading and writing. I'm leaving campus this afternoon having accomplished nothing at all.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Natures

Imperia is at an age where picking flowers is among the most wonderful things possible. When the spring dandelions were coming up, she wanted whole handfuls of them. Of course, the wanted whole handfuls of the daffodils and tulips that were springing up, too, not to mention any other kind of beautiful little thing growing in anyone else's yard or public place.

We had to teach her about what you could and couldn't pick, with varying explanations. Willow tried to explain that the fairies needed the flower petals to make dresses for fairy balls, while I, somewhat less magically inclined, explained that if we pick the flowers, they die faster and other people can't enjoy them.

So while the rogue flower-picking has waned, Imperia learned that people didn't care nearly as much about whether she picked random berries, leaves, stones, twigs, and soon these fell into the larger, but still treasured category of "natures."


Now every day, she has small gifts to offer: a woodchip from the playground, a pebble from the ground, twelve lovely blades of grass. These we accumulate in a small treasure box--a clear plastic container once for dried fruit.

This is adorable, no doubt, certainly when, at the end of her visit to her grandparents last week, she picked up a stone from the driveway, ran back to my mom and said, "Mom-mom, this is my missing-you stone."

On the other hand, it also means that we often have piles of dried leaves, handfuls of dirt, pebbles and other "natures" that show up: in her cubby at school, in pockets, in the laundry. One feels almost awful leaving those piles back outside, but they are frequently forgotten as soon as they are offered. I can merely hope that they are only making room for other treasures to be discovered, offered up, and taken. Bits of nature believed beautiful and valuable, if only for moments at a time.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Checklist

It occurred to me that I hadn't done a post on my summer writing/ research projects, something I tend to do every summer, if for no other reason than to remind myself when I'm being over-ambitious in my expectations. But since I sent off a complete draft of the collection intro to my co-editor today, and also got back and acceptance-with-revisions on another article (the one that discusses this play--Yay!), now seems like an opportune time to both make the list, and check off items that are done. Items in italics mean that I have at least gotten it off my desk for this round of collaborative work, so while there's more work to do, it's not an active action item.

A. The Collection
  1. Co-author the introduction (Completed full draft 6/13)
  2. Co-author chapter 1 (draft sent off 6/4)
  3. Finish revising my own essay (done pending copyedits)
  4. Edit essays for my contributors (2 done, 2 awaiting final drafts 6/30, 1 awaiting complete draft)
B. Stand-alone Articles

  1. Complete revisions for parody article.
  2. Complete revisions for Equus article
  3. Finish draft of March's plenary talk, revise and submit
  4. Work on, if not finish draft of paper idea from Narrative conference
C. The Long-Overdue Book Project (as if!)
  1. Organize material written since dissertation into new chapter framework
  2. Finish revising Introduction
  3. Clean up first two chapters (which need mostly updating and sharpening of the main argument)
  4. Draft Proposal
Here's the thing: Since A1 through B2 are all due by September 1, I think that's a realistic goal to set. I do think that B3 is attainable, and if I'm honest with myself, B4 should be tabled in favor of all of the C tasks. But wait! Let's not forget...

D. Teaching/ Service
  1. Finish commenting on Spring's grad projects
  2. File Spring's course records (easy procrastination job)
  3. Develop Syllabus for Honors intro drama class
  4. Develop Syllabus for Postmodern Lit class
  5. Develop Syllabus for Writing Intensive American Drama class
  6. Develop grad student independent study in conjunction with American Drama class
  7. Shepherd undergraduate mentee through beginning stages of his big project
  8. Read up on all those texts from 3, 4, 5 that I haven't read in ages
  9. Get a jump on Spring 09 London Tour materials
  10. Start organizing the committee that's doing the legwork on the revised undergrad major.
All of which I'm pushing back until we return from vacation on July 27. In fact, looking at this list now makes me feel like there is some substantive stuff that I'm doing and have done, but the diffuse nature of that damn collection has made it harder to grasp onto. Though now that I've gotten 2 articles accepted this summer, I think I'll cut myself a little break. And since Willow is making me a belated birthday dinner this evening (as we speak!) I think I'll start cutting myself that break tonight!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

RBOC: Whiney edition

  • Willow and Imperia are both out of town for several days and I miss them.
  • When I woke up this morning, the head cold, which had previously just been an allergy attack, had become a full-on chest cold.
  • Rambunctious and I had a full morning of fun stuff planned, but the farmer's market had virtually none of the great fruits and veggies they were advertising (strawberries, rhubarb, English peas), and the coffee shop we wanted to stop at for a mocha and a muffin (for me and for Rambunctious, respectively) had lost its A/C.
  • It was 97 degrees today.
  • Rambunctious didn't nap, even though I really needed to, and therefore needed him to.
  • When I checked my email this afternoon, I had a truckload of returned mail receipts for spam that I clearly hadn't sent, but the dept. IT administrator is off payroll until 7/1, so I'll have to wait until Monday morning to call it in.
  • I got a sitter for tonight for a soccer game, and ideally maybe drinks afterwards, but I couldn't for the life of me find anyone who wanted to hang out this evening.
  • Fifteen minutes into said soccer game, with nothing between me and the goalie but the ball, and I stepped in a divot and pulled my hamstring.
  • It's my birthday.
  • Blah.

OK. Had to get that out of my system.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Today's Reading: Noah

For the last couple weeks, I have been poking lazily through Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. At one point, I thought I might teach it, and may someday still, but the decision against it for fall meant that it often fell by the wayside for days at a time while I worked away at other things. I finally finished it this morning.

If you don't know the book, it's less a novel than thematically linked pieces of short fiction, and the 1/2 chapter is really an essay by Barnes on the intertwining of history and love. The common thread is Noah's ark: the wordworms on it, various sea catastrophes, survival, taking to the seas, what we might or mightn't find on Mt. Ararat, etc. And through many of them is the decidedly Barnesian, po-mo-lite tension inherent in the idea of history: what really happened, vs. the stories we tell about it, the fact vs. the fable. Barnes tends toward the notion of history as a collection of stories--this borne out not only by the fact that his history of the world is a seemingly random, non-linear, disjointed series of pastiches, but also by the way that his characters' lives are continually driven less by material circumstance than by the stories they tell themselves. He goes so far as to say so:

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. (240)


One of these overlaps are the thread of characters who go on monumental journeys, fueled by the idea of a mission from god. Noah's own mission, and two others that take them on pilgrimages to Mt. Ararat all suggest to a large degree that such drives are often quixotic, and that the blind fervor that propels them are as arbitrary as the psychotic break that sends another character in another story off into a boat with two cats to avoid an imaginary war.

Funny then, that later on the morning I finish Barnes's novel, while sitting in the Episcopal church today (I do that sometimes, you know), that I notice, "Hunh. The Old Testament reading is on Noah." And the sermon, by a retired bishop who's pinch hitting while the parish looks for a full-time rector, ties the three readings for the day together through the theme of obedience.

Now, obedience is a notion that I find troubling. It was blind obedience to what seemed like an arbitrary set of moral prescriptions that drove me out of the church in my late teens, and is a notion that I now understand as a less-than-arbitrary form of social control. (It's hard to want to believe in Foucault and a deity at the same time. And right now, Foucault makes more sense to me). And yet I ask for a kind of obedience from my children, from my students, even in a way, from Willow or from any friend (only inasmuch as I hope to obey as much as is sensible their wishes as well). As much as I am suspicious of authority and of power, I don't assume that authority and power are de-facto malevolent, any more than is the amorphous deity I try to imagine each week, or, for that matter, the very suspect theological institutions that propagate a very specific version of that deity.

So I sit in church resisting the idea of obedience, disagreeing with most of the sermon despite its being served up like so much pablum (I swear to god he tried to summarize the whole Cosby routine).

So why was I there? Happy to hear the story of Noah, yet loathe to hear it tied to a set of dicta to which I must be blindly obedient?

Because, like Barnes, I'm here for the stories (and the songs too...I sing in the choir for the sheer joy of singing in a choir). We take the kids for the stories, too, and when their teacher tries to tell them that magic and miracles are very different, we suggest that it's all pretty magical, just as much of the world is.

But back to Barnes's delusionary travelers. While I resist the obedience narrative being imposed on my Noah story, I am also leery of what seems like Barnes's casual dismissal of these journeys set off by a conviction. Even as I say that, I know about other quests set off by similar convictions: The Crusades, cross-burnings, 9/11, Kristallnacht, the two intifadas, European missionary imperialism, the list goes on and on. And yet those stories, those ways we make meaning of not only our lives, but all of existence as we know it, well, the belief in their magic is powerful stuff indeed.

Barnes's final chapter is a riff on heaven, where the first-person narrator describes the series of fantasies fulfilled in heaven, only to realize that those fantasies are finite, and ultimately begin to ring hollow. When he asks about god, his heavenly handler asks, "God. Do you want God? Is that what you want?" (298). Faith in this scenario is merely a projection of a human fantasy for authority, or an ordering principle. It's faith that's always the rub, isn't it? I'm not sure what fantasy I seek while in my choir robes, and what it means that it is composed almost entirely of doubt. Yet those stories about people willing to cram themselves into boats with animals for a delusion of providence still strikes me as compelling, and as worthy (and as troubling) a narrative for contemplation as any other I'm able to muster.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Reading as Productivity

Part of the reason, it occurs to me, why I've felt so unproductive lately is that a lot of my work has been reading, rather than writing; and not the whole-books sort of reading that we often ask our students to do to feel productive. It's been a bunch of other stuff.

Today, I read two chapters in a book I'm thinking about using for an article I'm revising, and skimmed another that I want to keep to read as the semester approaches, as I think it may come in handy as I design writing assignments. I re-read a play and the critical companion paper written by one of my grad students for his final project (though I've yet to write comments on it). I've read a few sections of another article, and then decided that while, yes, this article is phenomenally smart and maybe even a little revolutionary, that I don't want to rework a large section of an almost-completely-polished article just to accommodate it.

Of course, I've read some blogs, and I've read some news online, and I re-read a draft of something I'm radically revising, and I'm reading a student paper that needs to be sent off in its SASE before, you know, the student is actually back on campus... And at home I've got two novels going (Julian Barnes's History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl) both of which have teaching implications.

But it really is hard to think about all of this reading as "being productive." Which is ridiculous, of course. This brings me to mind of the idea of our work being inserted more and more persistently into a capitalist logic wherein everything is measured in terms of its exchange value, where its quantifiability is most tangible and its value is clearest when it can be reproduced, or exchanged for capital.

Teaching generally has this problem--in fact, one of the chapters I read today from Elizabeth's Ellsworth's excellent Teaching Positions notes, "Pedagogy, when it 'works,' is unrepeatable and cannot be copied, sold or exchanged--it's 'worthless' to the economy of educational accountability." That may be the truest thing I've read about teaching in months, and it resonates so deeply with me that I struggle to make real sense of the reproducible artifacts of my work (writing) as even remotely approaching the value of that teaching, which, even at its best, is hard to quantify.

In fact, it's the worst part of teaching--grading--that is easiest to quantify, and which inserts student learning into that same quantifiable economy of learning and accountability--for what do students yearn most acutely? Would they exchange good grades for actual learning? Vice versa? Which one do they most often think of as the path to a paying job?

All that said, as much as I can bespeak the inherent worth and importance of the unquantifiable (even that which calls quantifiability and exchange value into question), I can say honestly that in the last 24 hours, I felt most professionally proud when looking at a list of things I had accomplished (produced in preparation for my annual report--my own accountability to the system that trades economic capital for this very labor). And much of my early summer malaise has to do with an absence of clear-cut product (be it written product or even as my weight-loss and gym activities have produced, bodily product).

I have heard the lament of many critics of the direction of higher ed about the disappearance of a certain kind of 'life of the mind," one that creates space and time for contemplation, for reading, for batting about ideas. We often tie it to the corporatization of higher ed, and I think this is among the most insidious connections: that reading is not, in and of itself, productive, or at the very least, it has no direct product. Reading, as a crucial component of this mind-life, doesn't have anything to show for itself at the end of the day. And forget about contemplation.

As for me personally, I need to think about how to imagine my reading as a thing in-and-of-itself, reading as its own value--it's why I got into this field, I'd like to think. perhaps I can preserve it. To begin, I have to find ways not to feel like reading days are ones in which I've accomplished nothing, and even more so, to imagine days in which no real reading has occurred (even if writing has) as lacking. Such a change in mindset may be dangerous, perhaps for my career, but the alternative may be just as dangerous in other ways.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sliding into Summer

Final grades have been in for a couple of weeks, course evaluations are back, the weather's warming up, and it's impossible to deny: it's summer for the academic.

Over the previous few years, I have big projects to undertake over the summer. Last year it was the weight loss project, complete with thoughtful blogging, and some writing projects and such. The year before was a big push to get lots of writing and publishing stuff done. The year before that was the move to BRU. And so all told, I was able to spin those summers into very goal oriented, productive spans. Given that as much of my contractual obligation at BRU is publishing as well as teaching, the idea that I had my summers off was clearly a myth, and I was working hard to, well, work.

This summer, though I certainly have work to be done, I've had harder time organizing it into something. Oh, I've ticked items off the to-do list: editing pieces for the ticking time bomb of the edited collection, revisions to my own work, a renewed return to exercise and diet, some new reading, etc. But there was no clear marker that said, "now it is summer. Now it is time to begin X."

Instead, there's been a gradual slipping into summer, doing maintenance work on projects I was working on in the spring, vaguely stepping up efforts on personal goals that I work on year round, and gradually stopping the teaching work that defines the school year (I am still commenting on those few final papers that came in with SASEs).

The end of the school year, as Willow points out to me, typically comes with a brief bout of the doldrums, where my standard avenues of affirmation and energizing influence (the classroom, regular contact with colleagues, etc.) disappear, and I find myself unprepared for that with new ones. Soccer season will start up soon. The family vacation is months away (Canada again, as two years ago), and perhaps I'll find a rhythm on a summer project. But right now, the days kind of blend together, a neither-relaxing-nor-energizing melange of small work projects, trips to the gym, few social engagements, and the daily routine of family life.

In fact, this past week, I found myself doing something I've hardly done since we moved here: rearranging furniture. Friends from grad school may remember the comparative regularity with which the layout of our old living room changed, but here, the layout has typically been pretty constant (with the exception of the play room downstairs, which I have occasionally re-arranged to accommodate changing play-styles of the kids). but last week, I COMPLETELY re-arranged both the playroom and our upstairs office. It's as if by putting a room into a new order, I am somehow doing the same with my life. This often comes with a concomitant desire to make large purchases of avowedly, but dubiously practical nature--a new desk for Willow, an electric scooter to get to and from campus more efficiently, a car with better fuel efficiency, etc.

When it comes down to it, this all signals the degree to which I like changes, big ones, often, since the thrill of new circumstances to account for keeps me engaged in my own life. Now here I am, halfway to tenure, with my research agenda on auto-pilot for another year or so, and my teaching in a comfortable groove, and for the summer, at least, very little new to get me excited, to offer a kind of promise for an existence radically better, as if my existence weren't already pretty cushy.

After all, it is summer, and I'm an academic, and my malaise seems to stem from having too much time on my hands, time I desperately want at other points, and that other people often want just as badly. So buck up, I tell myself, and instead of slipping into summer, as I have thus far, it seems time to begin something. Or at least finish something with some resolve.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hard Core

Rambunctious likes to dance. His favorite kind of dancing?

RrrrocknRollllll (Said just like that, preferably punctuated with some kind of superhero punch or kick).

So this morning, when he placed his request to do some rock-n-roll dancing in the living room (one deferred from the previous evening), we played a few tracks for him to choose from:

The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" (too boring)
Twisted Sister's "We're not Gonna Take it" (got an initial response, but then ultimately was nixed).
Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" (yawn)
Whitesnake's "Here I go Again" ("That's not Rock-n-Roll!" says Rambunctious. "That's Right!" says Daddy)

Finally, we found something that rocked sufficiently hard:

Judas Priest "You Got Another Thing Coming."


He danced all the way through. To be fair, he also later found "Paint it Black" to be sufficiently rockin', but damn! to reject the Stones is just downright blasphemy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Salvaging a Crappy Day

So it's 60 and drizzly on this mid-May day. Imperia woke up at 3:30 and wouldn't go back to sleep until I laid down on the floor next to her bed, where I ended up staying until 6. about an hour after I rolled back into my own bed, Rambunctious appeared: "I don't feel well."

Willow graciously let me sleep a bit more while she got the kids up and settled, an appointment for Rambunctious at 10, Imperia staying home today, too. And she was even more gracious by encouraging me to keep my racquetball game while she had the kids at the doctor's office.

Then I lost three games in a row, only to go down to the locker room to discover that despite almost weeks of increased exercise, and 5 days of drastically reduced calorie and fat intake, I had gained a pound. Fun.

I got home at the same time as Willow and the kids, went down to help Rambunctious (now feeling really sick) out of the car, when he "sicked up" (the kids' coinage) all over the place.

Le sigh.

But for a little bit this afternoon, despite all of this bad day stuff,one thing has made my day:

This article was accepted with so few edits that I re-sent a final draft to the editor in 15 minutes. The journal (the second I sent it to since pulling it from the collection), is not a big one, but it's a good quality pub, so I'm happy that the essay has found a home, and that I'm that much closer to having the minimum research quota filled for tenure.

In the meantime, Willow is finishing bedtime with the kids, and I suspect that there's an early bedtime in store for the whole family. Now if it will only be warm and sunny tomorrow.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sexism on the Trail (oh, and Racism, too)

Today in the Washington Post, this cogent opinion piece that pins down the persistence of sexism in the democratic nomination.

No matter whom you support in this primary season, the discourses of race and gender both have been downright disheartening. As Marie Cocco posits here, the kind of casual sexism used to characterize Hillary Clinton is not just a differentiation of male and female gender types, but active bile that strikes at the heart of the notion of a woman in power.

What this continues to underscore, I think, is the prevailing notion that to be female or feminine is to be weak, and that "strong women" are either not really strong, or not really women. This, I think remains part of the problem: that our terminology has (dis)empowerment deeply embedded. That to be masculine is to be strong, whereas to be feminine (not necessarily female) is to be submissive.

Interestingly, this is an argument that has been made about race in America as well. In her brilliant Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartmann astutely locates the performative nature of race in the re-enactment of subjection and domination (Go read Hartman now, if you don't her work. That's ok. I'll wait). But while the raising-to-power of Obama (itself not a bad thing) has allowed too many of us to congratulate ourselves for this illusion of a post-racial society, the unwillingness to reverse those terms on gender is striking.

Now, illusion is a key word there, for Obama's now-almost inevitable nomination does not mean we live in anything like a post-racist society. But I think that this election cycle has told us that it's less ok to be obviously racist than before. The racism persists (see the villification of Rev. Wright and other African-American religious leaders...eta: and the link below), and in some cases has been displaced onto islamophobia. Nonetheless, we can't seem racist: hence the tut-tutting important outcry over the influence of race in WV's recent landslide victory for Clinton. Little such finger wagging about gender anywhere beyond editorials such as the one above, and much belittling pro-Hillary women as "voting emotionally."

I am not saying that Obama has had it easier, or that he's here because he's black. Far from it. His path here has been extraordinary, and I think he's among the most exciting presidential candidates in my voting lifetime.

All I am trying to say here is that this election has taught me that as a body we still think it's far more ok to be sexist than it is to be racist it's still ok to be sexist and racist--and it should not be ok to be either.

We can call Hillary a ball-breaker, but similar racist insinuations like the earlier gaffe by Biden are (justifiably) called out early and often. [eta: forget the comparison. wouldn't it be nice if we called out all of it more diligently? The only safe way to talk about race is to discuss this as an historic opportunity to mark the end of racism, an idea that is itself downright dangerous.

Let me reiterate here. I think both politicians are excellent potential presidents (as I thought about Edwards before he dropped out). I think both represent opportunities to change the tenor of identity politics. I also think that the "noooooo, that's not racism/sexism" of the campaign dangerously elides the very real and ongoing contours of a racialized and gendered America, and that if we think that electing a Black president marks an end to racism, or that electing a woman president marks an end to sexism, we're only kidding ourselves.

I'll end now, with the realization that I am in dangerous waters here, and that I have tried to tread carefully. Please feel free to weigh in.

ETA: Ugh. So apparently, as this excellent post points out, the racism's just as bad.

The Mess

What some have called the biggest academic scandal of the year is happening here in my backyard, and while I can't blog much about it, much of my post-semester activity has been involved in following and participating in the aftermath.

Those of you who know what I'm talking about, I do hope you'll spread the word about what's going on here in order to put more pressure on those who need pressure. Sorry to be vague, but if you'd like details, gmail me...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back into the Maelstrom

I'm back from the conference and trying to keep myself juggling the many tasks I've set myself:
  • Post-conference networking
  • Drafting the paper idea I had while at the conference (I wrote 9 pages on the idea before I left texas)
  • Grading final papers (grad and undergrad)
  • Getting a head start on the summer's time sensitive writing projects
  • Editing articles for the collection
  • Taking a few of those winter pounds back off
  • Cleaning up the yard
Many of those are going well (networking, which is a change), others (winter pounds anyone?) not so much. Ask me again in a week when those paper grades are done!